If you had to draw a picture of your language learning journey, what would it look like? It’s really important to think about this because how you define success is ultimately how you reach it. Here are three different views of language learning and some of the pros and cons for each:
#1 A linear journey
A student starts as a beginner and they know little-to-no English. Then they’re at an intermediate level and they can hold a basic conversation. After, they reach the advanced level and they can use English in a variety of different contexts with multiple different people. Finally, there is native-like proficiency, in which students can speak English “like a native speaker.”
Pros: The linear model is very ideal for organizing books and materials based on a student’s current level.
Cons: The levels themselves, beginner, intermediate, and advanced, are not bad in themselves. However, language learners don’t move from level to level in a linear way. On one day, a student might be nervous or tired, and might perform at a lower level than they would on another day. Also, it is very likely that a student does not have the same level for reading, writing, speaking, and listening. It’s completely normal to not have the same level in all four. That’s why this linear model might let students feel unmotivated when they have been “stuck” at one level for a long time. Finally, the end-goal being to speak English “like a native speaker” is problematic because not all “native” speakers sound the same way (more on this later.)
#2 A continuum (Medgyes, 1994)
Medgyes (1994) created this model which includes “native” and “non-native” speakers on the same continuum. He suggested that “non-native” speakers might be at the beginning of the model, in the beginners range. Or, they could be in the intermediate level and advanced level, too. However, after the advanced level, “non-native” speakers might reach a “glass wall” in which they can see “native-like” proficiency, but can never quite reach it. For one reason or another, listeners can tell that they are not a “native” speaker of English. “Native” speakers, on the other hand, start after the “glass wall.” Some are closer to full proficiency than others.
Pros: This model includes both “native” and “non-native” speakers and acknowledges that there is a lot of variability in these groups.
Cons: This model only calculates students’ knowledge of English. This is unfair because every student comes into the classroom knowing (at least) one other language. Other languages are resources which help students learn English. The model shows that students might reach a “glass wall” in which listeners might notice that they are not “native” speakers. First, there are many “native” speakers who are not perceived as such, as listeners might take extralinguistic information, like the speaker’s physical appearance, to judge the speaker’s language. Second, holding success in language learning as “speaking like a native speaker” and breaking the “glass wall” only continues the cycle which privileges people who are perceived as “native” speakers of English as the owners of the language.
#3 A dynamic journey (García & Li Wei, 2014)
Dynamic bilingualism takes into account that bilinguals language (yes, language can be used as a verb) in very complex ways. This theory does not view language as something concrete that exists in the world. Instead, it is something that exists inside each person’s linguistic repertoire – which contains each person’s language – and is socially created through conversation. Everyone’s language is viewed as dynamic because all speakers are constantly learning new words, phrases, etc. Language learning involves using all the linguistic resources available (e.g. other languages, cognates, pictures) to make meaning across languages and learn features of English.
Pros: Viewing language as something that is constantly changing gives agency to the speakers of the language, instead of a language institution, for example. This is the first model that takes multilingualism as the starting point and shows that learners enter the classroom with linguistic resources.
Cons: Translanguaging and dynamic bilingualism are relatively new theories, so it can be difficult for teachers to find information to understand exactly how to leverage a student’s linguistic resources to help them learn English. Let us know in the comments if you want us to post more about using translanguaging in the classroom.
- García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging and education. In Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education(pp. 63-77). Palgrave Pivot, London.
- Medgyes, P. (1994). The non-native teacher. London: Macmillan.